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Wild Canaries
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by Jay Seaver

"A murder mystery comedy in Brooklyn."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: "Wild Canaries" is not quite "The Thin Man", but it's better at that sort of thing than any other recent movie that leaps to mind. The combination of murder mystery and screwball comedy is a tough enough not to crack that not many people seem to be trying, but this one uses an impressive cast to breathe a lot of life into a matter of life and death.

Our amateur sleuth is Barri (Sophia Takal), a young woman who hasn't quite seemed to grow up completely. Money being tight, she and her fiance Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine) have a roommate in Barri's friend Jean (Alia Shawkat), even as landlord - and Noah's poker buddy - Damien (Jason Ritter) is showing it to potential buyers, while the film distribution business Noah works at with ex-girlfriend Eleanor (Annie Parisse) is on shaky ground. When their eighty-year old neighbor does, Barri suspects her son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) of foul play, and while Noah is quick to poo-poo that idea, Barri has time on her hands to snoop.

Murder can be a grim business, but it's also a great way to give a story some structure: Something kicks the story off, the characters are always doing something to get to the resolution, and there is a definitive end point. While all that's going on, you can throw in a bunch of stuff about how Jean may have a crush on Barri, Eleanor might have an "and Noah" clause to her attraction to girls, and Noah might be having doubts about sticking with Barri, and if you do it right, it's not only more fun because this being a thing people talk about as a secondary thing while handling other business makes them seem much less egocentric than when it seems to be their only concern. Plus, even when if the plot doesn't completely dictate how the romance shakes out by who's left standing, there is still going to be a sense of resolution, even if a lot of the same variables from the start are still in play.

Writer/director/co-star Lawrence Michael Levine manages that balance, giving the relationship material the room it needs without ever leaving the audience thinking "hey, remember the dead person?". It's fun and seldom overwrought or mean. The murder mystery element is the same way; it's simple enough to share the movie, twisty enough to be interesting, and frequently silly enough to be funny. A lot of movies like this can have major issues with shifting moods as they switch between A-story and B-story, but it's never much of an issue here; Levine really does do a very good job of finding the fun spot of the story while also taking things seriously enough that we care how things turn out.

Having a cast of characters the audience mostly likes played by a fine roster of actors helps; the supporting cast, in particular, is chock full of great character actors. Alia Shawkat, for instance, is expertly dry as Barri's best friend; she's got a great way of seeming to have herself together and then doing something that shows that she's almost as goofy as Barri is. Annie Parisse winds up playing the most apparently stable among the quadrangle, but with a quick wit that keeps Eleanor from ever coming across as dull. Kevin Corrigan and Jason Ritter play types that they are fairly familiar with - the sketchy guy and the weirdo artist - but make them work as part of the ensemble.

Interestingly, Levine and his wife (and frequent collaborator) Sophia Takal actually play the main characters a little broader. Levine gives himself a lot of painful-looking slapstick to serve as a bit of a counter to how Noah might mainly be seen as just being a jerk to the sweet Barri, and it works as often as not. Takal, meanwhile, gives perhaps the most cheerful performance I can remember coming from the actress (even when playing sexy, there's often something blunted about her). She makes the immaturity at the center of the character funny at times, and while it's easy to let that rub the audience the wrong way, she does a nice job of channeling it into having Barri feel everything strongly and make that felt even when the audience might be inclined not to take her seriously.

It's a good group, telling a pretty fun story, with a lightness that is a lot harder to achieve than it looks. It's also something of a step up in terms of production values for folks who have often worked much closer to the DIY end of independent film than the studio end, and I hope that means that whoever eventually picks it up gives it a chance to get into theaters.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26233&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/05/14 01:21:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

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